February 17, 2003

Laney: Beware of 'cornered'
N. Korea

By Michael Terrazas mterraz@emory.edu

Iraq may be the point of President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” that is receiving his adminstration’s closest attention, but the greatest threat lies on the Korean peninsula, according to former Emory President James Laney, who spoke at the latest Emory College Public Issues Forum, Feb. 13 in White Hall.

Laney, who served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1993–97, called the current situation in North Korea “very serious” and warned that war between North Korea and the United States would produce “catastrophic” casualties. Speaking in careful, measured tones before a full lecture hall, the former ambassador gave a quick primer on recent U.S.-North Korean relations and outlined his thoughts on how to resolve the tense diplomatic standoff between the two countries.

Driving the crisis is North Korea’s recent abandonment of a 1994 agreement (brokered by Jimmy Carter) in which it pledged not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for shipments of fuel and development of two light-water nuclear reactors (to generate electricity) from the United States. Since the last year in office of former President Bill Clinton (who named Laney ambassador to Seoul in 1993), relations between the two countries have steadily declined. With the recent reactivation of its Yongbyon nuclear facility, North Korea soon could produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for five or six nuclear bombs, Laney said.

“Unlike Iraq, this is not hypothetical,” he said. “This is real.”

And for anyone who thinks North Korea would back down from an armed conflict with America, Laney had sobering words; during the previous crisis in 1994, he said the two countries came within a hair’s breadth of war, with Clinton on the cusp evacuating U.S. citizens from neighboring South Korea.

“North Korea is a very dangerous entity when it is cornered,” Laney said. “North Korea is not Iraq; this [war] would not be a cakewalk.”

Though he was careful not to directly criticize the current Bush administration, Laney implied the situation no doubt was exacerbated by a “dismissive” and “contemptuous” attitude from Washington following the 2000 elections. Bush’s labeling of North Korea in his 2002 State of the Union Address as part of an “axis of evil” (along with Iraq and Iran) likely did not help improve relations, Laney said.

Then, in October of last year, when North Korea admitted to having reopened its nuclear program, Bush declared the 1994 agreement void and stopped fuel shipments. North Korea responded by kicking out international inspectors and proceeding full scale with the Yongbyon facility.

“To their credit, the Bush administration has acted with a great deal of restraint,” Laney said, but added that the two countries now are at an impasse: North Korea has said it will not halt its nuclear program without a formal pledge of nonaggression from the United States, and Washington has said it will not negotiate until North Korea stops its weapons program.

“So how do we get out of this?” Laney said. “How do you solve a problem when all you have are lousy options?”

North Korea must be given a “face-saving” way to back down, he said, proposing that the United States convene a summit with Russia, China and Japan in which all four nations pledge to maintain stability on the Korean peninsula if North Korea will again abide by the 1994 agreement.

The consequences of war would be the most dire since World War II, Laney said. Though North Korea could not possibly hope to defeat the United States, it could inflict horrific damage on its neighbor to the south; Seoul, a city four times larger than Atlanta, sits just 30 miles from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.

Even if war is avoided, allowing North Korea to proceed with its nuclear program also could be catastrophic. Aside from the possibility of President Kim Jong Il selling nuclear weapons to the highest bidder, a nuclear-capable North Korea would prompt Japan and likely South Korea to feel the need for such an arsenal, and then “all of East Asia could turn into an arms race of nuclear proliferation.” In such a reality, he said, even a minor incident could become a flashpoint for war.

“When I was ambassador, our greatest problem was trigger-happy soldiers along the DMZ,” Laney said.

The Public Issues Forum is a project of the Joint Activities Committee, a partnership between Emory College and Campus Life that looks for ways to bring together students and faculty outside the classroom.






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